Alajuela & the Northern Valley
Volcanoes shrouded in mist, undulating coffee fincas (plantations), bustling agricultural centers: the area around the provincial capital of Alajuela, 18km northwest of San José, seems to have it all – including Juan Santamaría International Airport, just 3km outside the city.
Roatán is the largest and most developed of the Bay Islands. Long and thin (50km long, but only 2km to 4km wide), the island is (like neighboring Utila) a real diving and snorkeling mecca – virtually its entire coastline is fringed by an astonishingly diverse coral reef teeming with tropical fish.
Monteverde & Santa Elena
Strung between two lovingly preserved cloud forests, this slim corridor of civilization consists of the Tico village of Santa Elena and the Quaker settlement of Monteverde, each with an eponymous cloud-forest reserve. The cloud forests around Monteverde and Santa Elena are premier destinations for everyone from budget backpackers to well-heeled retirees.
Monteverde & Around
Spread out on the slopes of the Cordillera de Tílaran, this area is a sprawling chain of villages, farms and nature reserves. The biggest population center – the village of Santa Elena – runs almost seamlessly into its next-door neighbor Cerro Plano and its next next-door neighbor, tiny Monteverde (which borders the namesake reserve).
Southwestern Nicaragua's Pacific beaches offer amazing surf, sand and sun. To get to the Tola beaches – El Astillero down to Playa Gigante – you'll need to pass through Rivas and Tola, then head toward the beach. There is only extremely rough 4WD access on the coast between Veracruz and El Astillero.
Well, they don’t call it Tamagringo for nothing. Tamarindo’s perennial status as Costa Rica’s top surf and party destination has made it the first and last stop for legions of tourists. It stands to reason, then, that this is the most developed beach on the peninsula with no shortage of hotels, bars and restaurants.
San Pedro Sula
The business and industrial capital of Honduras, San Pedro generates almost two-thirds of the country’s GDP, with thousands employed in giant maquila (clothes-weaving) factories. It's wealthier and more sophisticated than Tegucigalpa, despite its horrendous reputation for gang violence.
Word has spread about the hippie-chic outposts of Montezuma and dusty yet glamorous Santa Teresa. During the dry season, packs of international surfers and wanderers arrive, hungry for the wild beauty and soul-stirring waters on either side of the peninsula. In between – at the very southern tip of the Península de Nicoya – lies the first natural reserve in Costa Rica.
Few places in Costa Rica generate such divergent opinions as Jacó. Partying surfers, North American retirees and international developers laud it for its devil-may-care atmosphere, bustling streets and booming real-estate opportunities. Observant ecotourists, marginalized Ticos and loyalists of the 'old Costa Rica' absolutely despise the place for the exact same reasons.
Placencia, a true beach-holiday strip on the mainland, is enduringly popular with North American expats and tourists. Perched at the southern tip of a long, narrow, sandy peninsula, the village has long enjoyed a reputation as 'the cay you can drive to' – a fully-paved 27-mile road heads off the Southern Hwy via Maya Beach and Seine Bight to the tip of the peninsula.